A Pool of Saliva

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byKim Ae-ran
A Pool of Saliva

There she is, running down the street, shielding her face from the morning light with her hand as small as a maple leaf. She is wearing cotton pants and an orange shirt. On one side, there is a logo that resembles a globe and the inscription, “New Elite Academy 10th Anniversary.” It’s Independence Day, and there aren’t many people out on the streets. There is an uncharacteristic peace around the sandwich stand and the free newspaper stand. A row of half-awake people make a line at the escalator. As children, these people probably did not aspire to be something as grand as a historical figure, but they most probably did not ask to be people who work on public holidays. She attaches herself to the end of the row and laments, ‘If only I had been motivated enough to demand an after-school education, I wouldn’t be here doing this.’ Almost instantly, she finds her thoughts embarrassing. She knows all too well that all parents make excuses for their academically challenged students by insisting their children are “not motivated,” instead of admitting that they are simply “not smart.”

Her cram school is located in Mokdong. It’s a corporate cram school with over a thousand students in the seventh grade alone. She’s a Korean Language and Literature teacher for the middle school program. When she first started interviewing for cram school jobs, she was surprised to discover that she had to name her own salary. One of the cram school interviewers said, “We can give you as much as you want. If you want ten million, we can give you ten million. If you want six, we’ll give you six. The important thing is that you prove yourself worthy of the price you name. So, how much do you want?” She sat on the leather sofa feeling like an insect as she searched for an answer. Too little would make her seem incompetent, and too much would make her sound pompous. There was something strange about this salary system that the cram school director maintained to be “fair,” but she couldn’t figure out what it was. She does know that what she felt at that moment, sitting on that leather sofa, was humiliation. As she presented her sample lecture for the interview, the administrative-level teacher who looked like he’d be worth six million a month slept with his head tossed back, mouth wide open. Their unexpected request to do a sample lecture left her fumbling with no teaching material to work with, but for some strange reason she couldn’t manage to say “I can’t do it” at that moment. She returnd home miserable, despite the fact that she was already being a cop-out by looking for a cram school job, which is easier and better compensated than the average corporate job. Anyway, she wound up choosing New Elite over the “six-to-ten-million won” cram school.

She has the financial competence to pay rent and utilities for a small studio apartment, have health insurance, invest in an accumulative fund, and feed her high-interest savings account. She knows that in order to complete her accumulative fund payments, she must charge like a horse and dance like a bear every day. From time to time, she feels as though a certain part of life has been handed to her as an advance. She feels jealous of people younger than her who silently devoted a year of their lives to study for civil service exams, and returned with stable government jobs. The confidence that employment brings, not having to feel nervous when drinking with other people, and the ability to make monetary contributions at acquaintances’ weddings and funerals all stop her from quitting the cram school job. Every time she toys with the idea of quitting, payday invariably came around like an apologetic lover.

The station P.A. announces the arrival of the train. People inch toward the safety line. She takes a deep breath and resolves not to be a sissy. Periods never stopped her from taking the college entrance exam, showing up at her temp job, or going on school trips. She is suddenly reminded of her hubae1). Her hubae sleeps during the day and works at night. Her hubae got the grading gig through her. When she offered the editing job to her hubae, who had spent days searching jobsites on the Internet with a storm cloud over her face, she had jumped for joy. At 1000 won a page, editing would be more profitable than bussing trays. Less than a day later, her hubae had looked up at her with bloodshot, teary eyes, “Older Sister, Korean middle school kids are all idiots.” It’s been three months since they’ve been living together. To this day, she does not know whatever incited her to take her hubae in. If she had to name a reason, she would say it was because she liked her voice. She may have liked the look in her hubae’s eyes as she talked about this and that the first night they spent together. The texture of her hubae’s voice. Her face turns ashen. The train stops with a loud screech. She hops over the gap between the train and the platform and into the air-conditioned car. The door closes. It’s cold

The morning greetings of her co-workers were always related to fashion. When she first started working, she took it seriously when people at the office greeted her with, “You changed your hairdo,” “I like your bag, Miss Park,” “Where’d you get your skirt?” and so on. At first, this made her happy. Shy but proud of herself, she would check herself out in the bathroom mirror. It wasn’t long before she realized that people at the cram school talked about fashion obsessively. Fashion was not the topic of small talk, but rather a very important issue to be discussed religiously on a regular basis. She grew weary of her limited wardrobe and other female teachers’ eyes on her. When someone paid her a compliment, she felt strangely indebted. She was often paranoid that everyone was looking at her and rating her outfit as she entered the office every morning. She soon found out that she’d worried about nothing. The teachers welcomed any change because it gave them something to talk about. The first thing she heard today when she entered the office, however, had nothing to do with fashion.

The Department Head calls her. During the however many steps it takes to get to his desk, she thinks of all the ways she may have screwed up. Nothing comes to mind. She is meticulous and diligent, and always receives good scores on the quarterly evaluations. The Head asks, You’re in charge of classes SH1 and CK2, right? Yes, she answers, bracing herself. My hubae—I know, he interrupts her. She keeps her mouth shut. She fixed perfectly fine words wrong! She looks at the pile of papers on the Head’s desk. Her hubae’s loopy handwriting is scrawled all over the pages. She must have read it very carefully, for the comments boxes are rather full. She changed “for example” to “for exemple,” and the “because” here turned a perfectly fine sentence into a fragment. The parents of these children are highly educated people. Do you have any idea how many complaints I received today? Are you sure your hubae is a Korean lit major? She doesn’t know how to respond to that. Should she ask, “How many mistakes did she make?” to verify, should she confirm, “Yes, she really is a Korean lit major,” or attempt damage control, “I’ll redo it myself?” Finding the right response at last, she says, I am sorry. Miss Park. I know we only pay 1000 won per page, but the trust we lose when we make these mistakes is worth a hundred times more than that. He says your hubae can’t have the editing work anymore. She keeps her mouth shut. He asks if he’s been understood. She hesitates. He’s waiting for an answer. She finally says, I am sorry. That means, I got it. She goes back to her seat. The co-workers quickly pretend they weren’t looking. She feels her cramps. She sniffles. As she carefully dabs under her nose, Mr. Ch’oe asks, Miss Park, did you catch a cold? She nods. Who catches a cold in the summer?, Miss Kim chimes in. ‘Who catches a cold in the summer? I do! Do you want to know why? You make me sit in front of the air conditioner the size of a house, that’s why! You know I’m freezing my butt off here, and no one says anything about turning the air conditioner off or even turning it down a little, that’s why!’ She suddenly wants to cry like a child. Once, when she was coughing up her lungs, everyone expressed polite sympathy, but not one of them volunteered to sub for her. Her hubae irritates her, too. ‘And after I printed out the “Common Grammar and Spelling Errors” for her!’ When she told her hubae to “turn off the light and go to sleep,” her hubae would say, “No, I have to finish” and end up falling asleep like a baby, leaving the light on all night. The Department Head shouts, Let’s go, everyone! She shoots him a quick sideways glance, Your face is a sentence fragment. She asks herself how much she knows about her hubae, other than the fact that she cannot spell “example.” Like the time she could not remember a single word of French after three years of French in high school, her mind draws a blank. Mr. Ch’oe taps her on the shoulder. C’mon.

Her hubae was a good storyteller. It had nothing to do with great wit or knowledge. When her hubae told a story, she told it as though she was relating the most important story in the world with the greatest care. Every time she listened to her hubae’s story, she felt something quiver inside her, similar to the way she felt after reading an abominably translated and therefore unreadable yet somehow profound philosophical text.

The day she first invited her hubae to her place, all her hubae had brought was a small bag. The only connection between the two was an unbelievably vague and symbolic one—that they went to school together and that they’d met before. Like a traveler out of a fairy tale, her hubae asked if she could stay the night. Her hubae’s voice was confident and gentle. She hesitated before agreeing to put her up for the night. She didn’t want people to think of her as a cold seonbae2), and she didn’t mind entertaining a guest for one night. She laid out the futon for her, turned on the heat for warm water, sent her hubae into the bathroom for a shower, and began to seriously wonder why she had allowed her to stay the night. Perhaps she wanted to be a good person for one night. Perhaps she was pleasantly surprised by such a boldfaced, innocent request after becoming accustomed to encountering favors that were thinly veiled exchanges. The fact that she jumped at the opportunity to put her up for the night suggested that perhaps she was subconsciously wishing that someone would ask her for a favor, even a rude one. When her hubae came out of the bathroom, she started to pummel her silly with questions and offers. “You want something to eat?” “Do you want something comfortable to wear?” “The skin toner and lotion are here, this is the eye cream, and that’s the intensive moisturizer.” “Do you want a big pillow or a little pillow?” When she ran out of things to say, she asked without meaning to, “Would you like a glass of wine?”

That night, the two rolled the futon aside and sat facing each other across a folding table. She placed on it a bottle of Chilean wine and two wine glasses, and said that she didn’t know much about wine, but enjoyed it every once in a while. The two made an awkward toast and each took a sip. Do you want to listen to music? When she started to crawl toward her laptop, her hubae said that it was fine. They exchanged a few words—topics anyone could discuss with anybody without finding themselves in an awkward situation. Frivolous discussion on weather, politics and movies. Her hubae cracked a joke at some point, and they laughed together for the first time. You appeared in my dream last night, Older Sister, said her hubae. She looked puzzled. You know how sometimes people you don’t know very well appear in your dreams and make a significant contribution to the plot? She nodded, I know! It’s really awkward when they appear in an obscene dream. You feel embarrassed and tense around the person when you see them the next day, right? Her hubae smiled. She burst into laughter, I know! She felt relieved in a way. Her hubae continued, In my dream, you and I were standing in the middle of a summer field in some random East Asian country. I have no idea why we were there together since we barely know each other, but we were together anyway. We stood in a spooky field looking up at the foreign night sky. Suddenly, I saw the Big Dipper, which hung unusually close to the horizon. Those were the only stars in the sky. She eagerly waited for her hubae to continue. We headed toward the stars and were flabbergasted. The seven lights actually turned out to be seven little lightbulbs on the roof of a brothel. She laughed out loud, You’re a liar! No, said her hubae with a straight face. It’s the truth. she continued, I remember feeling strangely relieved when I found out they were lightbulbs. They talked about a lot of things. She threw her head back and laughed every once in a while, finding things hilarious. She lay down sideways on a cushion, deliciously tipsy. She thought to herself, this is so much better than being stuck in the backseat with a co-worker I don’t like, forced to make small talk all the way to the destination. Perhaps this safe friendship that came with an expiration date made her feel generous. It was possible for anyone to be nice to anyone for one day. One could be as interesting or hospitable as one wanted to for a day. Although she wasn’t expecting it, she felt as though her kindness had been rewarded by her hubae’s good stories. She had a nice voice. They emptied the bottle of wine in no time.

Her hubae left her leaning against a cushion with her eyes half-closed, and poked through her bag for something. She seemed to want to show her something. She came back and sat before her and stretched out her palm. There was a small wooden box on her hand. The simple box had a muted sheen from years of wear. Her hubae said quietly, Older Sister, I have a good story for you. She nodded. The box stirred her curiosity. I came here because the creditors foreclosed on the place I was staying. They didn’t give me a hint in any way, but I could tell I couldn’t stay there any longer. She braced herself. She was afraid she would be let in on a heavy secret in exchange for an empty act of kindness. When I was little, I used to move around a lot. As you know, I was on a work-study scholarship at school. She hadn’t remembered that her hubae had been on a work-study scholarship, but she hoped that the story she was about to hear was not a dark, troubling one. Wasn’t her studio apartment too cramped a space for her hubae to unload a story like that? I’m not sure where to start, but this isn’t a big deal, so don’t worry. She smiled uneasily. Her hubae continued equably, I once took a trip to the city library with my mom when I was young. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it took us over two hours to get there. She remembered that it wasn’t until she was in middle school that she first saw the inside of a library. Summoning up the memory of the library, her hubae also made the same face she had made years ago at the library. That day, the moment I stepped into this enormous mass of silence holding my mother’s hand, my heart began to race. Her hubae looked at something beyond the reach of sight, the way a blind person does. She looked down at the box. She could not tell what her hubae was trying to say. Mom sat me down at the library rest area, and told me to stay put for a while. She said she was going to look up some books. She gave me a pack of gum and told me to chew it if I got bored. She nodded. I peeled a stick of gum as soon as Mom disappeared into the stacks. My mouth kept filling up with sweet saliva from the chewing gum, and I had to stop chewing and swallow the sugary water. I sat in the chair and watched people. I didn’t know exactly what a library was, but I did know I had to be quiet. She nodded. I waited for quite some time, but Mom didn’t return. I was nervous, so I peeled another stick and chewed on it for ten, twenty minutes—until the sweetness wore off. In the end, Mom didn’t return. She felt she was listening to a pretty familiar story, and the familiarity of the plot made her feel a little tired despite her hubae’s misfortune. ‘Don’t mothers usually abandon their children at the market or the train station? What kind of a mother leaves her child at a library?’ I became anxious, so I started to blow bubbles. I blew bubbles, popped them loudly, and practiced being surprised. I was afraid that very soon, the time would come for me to be really surprised. I wandered into the stacks chewing the third stick. Since the library was a quiet place, I figured, maybe Mom has fallen asleep somewhere. I looked for my mom. The shelves all looked the same to me, so I didn’t know where I was going, but precisely because the place seemed like a maze to me, I was convinced I would find her there. I put the fourth stick of gum in my mouth because I was beginning to choke up. You can’t say for certain that it’s over until you’ve chewed the entire pack, you know? It makes sense, doesn’t it? Mom would not have left me with a whole pack of gum if she’d planned to come back before I was done chewing them all, would she? She nodded uneasily. What was taking so long? How many books was Mom borrowing? The library was frightfully quiet. I peeled off the fifth stick. The crumpling sound of the gum wrapper was overpowered by the sound of pages turning. I rolled the piece of gum covered in powdered sugar, and popped it in my mouth. Mom wasn’t there. My heart was breaking, but I couldn’t cry out loud. If I had cried at the library, it would have been the loudest cry in the world. She listened intently. In the end, Mom didn’t return. Her hubae looked into her face. This is the last piece of gum. Her hubae pushed the box toward her and carefully opened the lid. Mesmerized, she leaned forward to look inside the box. A flat piece of ginseng gum lay neatly in there. She felt like her heart had stopped beating. Really? What? asked her hubae. Uh, nothing. Silence hung between the two as they sat face to face, staring at a piece of gum. She looked at the ginseng gum lying gracefully on the velvet lining of the box. The wrapper was soggy and discolored. Despite the ginseng in its content, the gum looked like it would have a very harmful effect on one’s body. What her hubae did next shocked her. She took the piece of gum and ripped it in half without reservation. Wha, what are you doing? she asked, shocked. This is for you, said her hubae. She turned blue. Like a person trying to dissuade a deserter, she pleaded, Don’t! Her hubae smiled radiantly and said, It’s okay.

‘What’s okay?’

The torn, exposed part of the gum trembled. It’s just gum, said her hubae. Thank you, Older Sister. She was bewildered. Everything seemed like a lie and the truth at the same time. Her hubae’s existence seemed fake to her. Is her hubae pulling her leg? Maybe there’s over a hundred packs of old ginseng gum at her house in a closet of lies? Do they even make ginseng gum these days? The important thing was that, apart from whether it was true, the story moved her. She refused many times before finally giving in and taking the piece of gum. She put it in her receipt drawer on the dresser. It’s a piece of gum, and I can always give it back when she leaves, she thought. Anyway, of all the things that happened that night, there is one thing that she cannot forget to this day: the conclusion of her hubae’s story. It might have been those words that convinced her to live with her. Her hubae resumed in her beautiful voice, Since that day, whenever I think of my mother who disappeared, or when I have to part with people I loved deeply—Uh-huh, she reacted helplessly, the piece of gum imposed on her. When I look back on all those heartbreaking separations, the people I left, the ones who left me—Uh-huh. Her hubae said with the most infinitely transparent expression on her face, “My mouth waters.”

The bus departs. Cold air pours out from dozens of tiny air conditioning vents. It’s cold. I’m depressed. She’s not sure if it’s because of her period, her cold, the company Sports Day on a national holiday, or the Department Head. The combination of the air conditioner and the smell of the bus gives her motion sickness. Looking out the window, she goes over the “vertex dance” sequence in her head. One, two, three, turn. One, two, three, forward. When she practiced the steps in their tiny studio, her hubae doubled over with laughter. Older Sister! What? Her hubae cried, turning white with laughter, You’re terrible! The weather is fine, and a few tired teachers are snoring. The Department Head is seated in the front, sharing energy drinks with the Team Leader. They are determined to validate the existence of the Korean department today, as the general consensus around the cram school is that the Korean department “doesn’t do much” compared to the Math and English departments. Across the aisle from her, the cram school bus drivers are talking amongst themselves. It’ll be another hour before they arrive at the destination. Should I nap? Sniffle. More snot. This is just great.

The morning after the night her hubae stayed over, she dressed and tiptoed around the house getting ready for work. Her hubae lay sleeping like a dead person. She watched her for a long while before leaving the apartment. There was nothing more insensitive than to wake someone and kick them out. She taught absentmindedly, attended a meeting, and returned home. When she opened the door, she found her hubae sitting daintily next to her bag in the middle of a pristine apartment. She seemed like a parcel, ready to be delivered anywhere.

You’d already left. I wanted to say goodbye.

Still standing by the door, she nodded awkwardly. She didn’t know what to do next. So... Do I say goodbye now? Take care, I’ll see you around. Should I ask if she has enough cash to get wherever she’s going? Without meaning to, she blurted, Have a glass off wine before you go.

It must have been around that moment that she thought she might try living with her hubae. That night, she emptied a whole bottle of wine, passed out before her hubae could leave, and woke up the next morning with a terrible flu. Her hubae felt her forehead with her cool hand, called in sick for her, and quietly made rice porridge. She peered at her hubae’s busy movements from under the covers. Loopy from the cold medication, she told her hubae to stay until she found a place to settle down. Without a word, her hubae continued to cut kimchi. That was three months ago. Her hubae stayed at her place, passing the time cleaning the house into somewhere unrecognizable while she was at work, downloading movies or American TV shows she might enjoy after work and organizing them like folded towels, or putting chrysanthemums in tall glasses. Her hubae also continued to look for work. She collected justifications for living with her hubae. Since her hubae was looking for work, it’d be nice if she could pay half the rent. Her hubae would feel more comfortable that way, and she’d be able to save on rent. Later, when she mentioned her plan in passing, her hubae asked hesitantly, Would it be all right with you?

Would it be ‘all right’ with her? What could her hubae have possibly meant by that? The principal’s speech rings through the sky. Would it be all right with her? Wasn’t that her hubae’s way of pretending to be considerate when she was really passing the responsibility off to her? Four canopies stand facing each other in the athletic field. The judges’ tent is in the middle, and the others are all for cheering squads. The expressionless administrators sit under the shade in the judges’ tent. She vows to stop thinking about her hubae. The emcee announces the raffle prizes: a kimchi refrigerator, a bicycle, an MP3 player, and a soccer ball, among others. The field is stirring with excitement. The soundtrack for the National Warm-up Exercises blares through the speakers. Everyone awkwardly pretends to march. The music is accompanied by the demanding, “One! Two! Three! Four!” and domineering exclamations such as “Hamstrings!” and “Deep Breath!” She’s been hearing the National Warm-up Exercise song since kindergarten. The song had a strangely exhilarating, refreshing, and then sobering effect on her. But today, she can’t get over the hilarity of making rowing gestures with her arms to the most dramatic melody in the world as the man in the recording exclaims, “Whole body!” The music ends, and waves of people divide according to color. There are five colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue—for five departments. She is impressed by the size of her company. She thinks, It’s a lot larger than I thought, and cheers. The preliminary soccer games will take place in the large athletic field, while the three-legged race and kickball will be held in the small athletic field. The cheering squads divide into a few groups and settle down. She sits by the soccer field with white inflated tubes in both hands. Male teachers from the Korean and Math departments stand in two rows and bow before the game. The cheering squad on the other side cries, Yay! The Korean department echoes them in response. She keeps sniffling as she claps the plastic tubes together. The whistle blows, and the game begins. Light-footed young men spread out all over the field under the bright summer sky. Win! 


* Translated by H. Jamie Chang.

Author's Profile

Kim Ae-ran debuted in 2003 with “No Knocking in This House,” which won the Daesan Literary Award. She has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for “I Go to the Convenience Store.” “Knife Marks,” the story excerpted here, received the 2008 Lee Hyoseok Award.